One of the main purposes of this blog, apart from being a kind of daily tablet for my thoughts, is to demonstrate that religion continues into the age of secularity. It would be an uncomfortable stretch of the imagination to suggest Kurt Vonnegut was a religious writer, but it would also be a disservice to him to ignore just how much religion shows up in his novels. Often the remarks are subtle and perhaps easily missed, but one of his early works, The Sirens of Titan, treads pretty solidly in that territory. From the fact that monument to the twelve great religions was made by artisans who don’t know what those religions are to the founding of a new religion to unify humankind, this story never strays far from it. It’s also, in my experience, the most science-fictiony of Vonnegut’s books.
The Church of God the Utterly Indifferent is the goal of Winston Niles Rumfoord’s doomed Martian attack on earth. Because the Martians are actually brainwashed earthlings, they are sacrifices to the grand vision of all people sharing a single religion that recognizes God does nothing to help humans and humans, therefore, should not worry about serving God. Clearly a religion that functions the opposite way of most actual religions—which try to keep God happy, often by harming other humans—Rumfoord’s vision is a united Earth. One of the pawns in his scheme is his unhappy wife, and another is the biblically named Malachi Constant. Constant built a ship to take humans to Mars. Christening it The Whale, Constant took the pseudonym Jonah, which is something readers are increasingly ill-equipped to understand, but which demonstrates Vonnegut knew his Bible.
Religion plays throughout Sirens of Titan in ways that both poke fun at the seriousness with which religion is treated and with a certain respect for its power. Vonnegut’s famous nihilistic leanings pervade the novel with an almost Job-like portrayal of Rumfoord, and several ethical questions lie beneath the apparent space-travel story. Genre fiction, as I’ve intimated before, is intended to be slotted easily into recognized categories. Critics reserve the sobriquet of “literary fiction” for those pieces that don’t really fit other patterns—not all fiction obeys the rules—and that’s where I’d put Sirens. Yes, people zoom around in flying saucers and invasions from space are standard sci-fi tropes. Engagement with religion, even if it is to question it, tends to move fiction into more serious categorizations, excluding, of course, novels written to promote a particular religion. None of them would suggest a Church of God the Utterly Indifferent. Unless, of course, they came from Kurt Vonnegut.